Looking for the Real "Phil Spector"

A new HBO movie dips into the surreal life of the convicted murderer and music impresario.

By Colin Bertram
|  Thursday, Mar 21, 2013  |  Updated 7:24 PM EDT
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Music producer Phil Spector is shown in Superior Court Monday, May 23, 2005, in Los Angeles.

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In art as in life, the enigma that is Phil Spector fascinates and baffles in equal parts. Just who is the real man behind the lauded music career, frightful wigs and erratic behavior?

That question is again making the rounds of dinner parties and websites as the musical maestro turned convicted murderer is examined in the new HBO biopic, “Phil Spector,” starring Al Pacino in the titular role and Helen Mirren as his attorney Linda Kenney Baden.

Along with the falsely hirsute Oscar winner's interpretation (Pacino immerses himself in the role, wigs and all), the television movie is of interest due to its admitted lack of historical fact as it examines the relationship between Spector and Baden during Spector's first trial for the murder of actress/model Lana Clarkson that occured at his Los Angeles-area mansion in 2003.

Audiences hoping to come away with a greater insight into the legend and the crime he is convicted of committing will have to decide for themselves what is real and what was created for the cameras. The 90-minute film starts with the following statement: “This is a work of fiction. It’s not ‘based on a true story.’ It is a drama inspired by actual persons in a trial, but it is neither an attempt to depict the actual persons, nor comment upon the trial or its outcome.”

According to The Hollywood Reporter, writer/director David Mamet stated that he was interested in the “mythological possibilities” of the high-profile murder case and decided the story couldn’t just be fact-based. Whether Mamet’s fictional approach to Spector’s trial titillates or turns off viewers remains to be seen.

What is without question, though, is that the creator of the wall of sound and the man who produced hits for the Ronettes, the Righteous Brothers and The Beatles still fascinates some 50 years after his musical career began, and 10 years after the shooting death of Clarkson.

As he looms large once more in popular culture, here’s a look back at the reality that shaped the specter of Spector.

Early Life and Career

He was born Harvey Philip Spector on December 26, 1940, in New York City. Following the suicide of his father in 1953, a 9-year-old Spector and his family moved to Los Angeles.

Spector learned how to play the guitar and started writing songs while at Fairfax high school and formed his first band, The Teddy Bears, with fellow students Annette Kleinbard, Marshall Leib and Harvey Goldstein after graduation. The group had a No.1 hit in the United States and the United Kingdom with "To Know Him Is To Love Him." At age 19, Spector had written, arranged, played, sung, and produced the best-selling record in the country. Further hits eluded them and the band split in 1959.

Success as Producer

Following a move to New York to focus on producing, Spector and fellow producer Lester Still formed their own label, Philles Records in 1961. The partners signed on the group The Crystals, whose first two singles made Billboard’s top 20. Spector (both as a freelance producer and for his own label) had successes with singers such as Connie Francis (“Second Hand Love”) and girl group The Ronnettes (“Be My Baby”).

By age 21, Spector was a millionaire responsible for producing 20 consecutive smash hits. It was then that he established his trademark Wall of Sound; a production technique that delivered a dense, layered effect created by doubling or tripling the amount of instruments involved in the orchestrations. The result was popular music featuring a lush, dense sound which Spector described as the "Wagnerian approach to rock 'n' roll."

Further hits followed: 1964’s “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and 1965’s “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers, and Ike and Tina Turner’s "River Deep, Mountain High" (1966). The latter single’s lukewarm reception Stateside (it went to No. 3 in the UK) disheartened Spector and he withdrew from the industry and the public eye for a time during which he married Veronica “Ronnie” Bennett, lead singer of the Ronnettes, in 1968. (Spector was first married to Annette Merar in the 1960s before Ronnie Spector, whom he divorced in 1974.)

In 1969, Spector returned to work to produce John Lennon's solo album. After that success he was asked to turn a series of Beatles’ recording sessions into a cohesive album. The result was “Let It Be,” an album that topped both the U.S. and U.K. charts. Spector continued to produce solo albums and singles for Lennon including “Imagine” and “Happy Xmas (War is Over),” as well as “Bangla-Desh” for Harrison. But as the 1970s progressed, Spector's relationship with Lennon deteriorated to a point which reportedly saw the producer brandishing a gun in the studio before disappearing with master tapes for the album “Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

Wigging Out

Further episodes of seclusion followed. In 1974 Spector was seriously injured in a car crash in Hollywood according to his biographer Dave Thompson (“Wall of Pain: The Biography of Phil Spector”), who suggests that the resulting head injuries were the reason Spector began donning the outré wigs he became known for in subsequent years.

Spector re-emerged in the late 1970’s to produce work for Leonard Cohen and the Ramones before once again returning to semi-seclusion. Reports of his rare public appearances became more and more marked by strange behavior. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, Spector stunned the audience when he entered to accept the honor accompanied by three bodyguards, all of whom carried guns. His rambling speech finished, the bodyguards then appeared to usher him offstage.

In 2007 he attended Ike Turner’s funeral during which he criticized Tina Turner, saying: “Ike made Tina the jewel she was. When I went to see Ike play at the Cinegrill in the 90s…there were at least five Tina Turners on the stage performing that night, any one of them could have been Tina Turner.” Spector went on to say that if wasn’t for Oprah’s endorsement of Turner’s autobiography “I, Tina,” it “wouldn’t have sold 10 books” and that the resulting film version, “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” was a “piece of trash movie.”

Murder Trials

On February 3, 2003, Lana Clarkson was found dead in Spector’s mansion, slumped in a chair in the foyer with a gunshot wound to the mouth following a night of drinking with the music impresario. Prosecutors say he killed her when she rejected his overtures. Spector's lawyers argued that forensic evidence suggests the wound was self-inflicted.

In September 2004, Spector was charged with Clarkson’s murder and the resulting trial generated much public interest due both to his former professional fame and his insistence on wearing increasingly outlandish wigs and brightly colored suit and tie ensembles in the courtroom. That trial ended in a hung jury and has become the inspiration for the HBO movie.

A retrial began in October 2008. It was delayed as Mr. Spector brought in a new legal team who haggled with prosecutors over evidence. According to at least five women who testified in court, Spector had a frightening penchant for firearms and drunken outbursts. Defense lawyers argued that Clarkson’s Hollywood ambitions had stalled, that she had been suicidal and that she had turned the gun on herself.

Spector spent most of the years following the death of Clarkson out on bail. That came to an end on April 13, 2009 when, following 127 hours of deliberation the jury found him guilty of second-degree murder. On May 29, 2009 he was sentenced to 19 years to life in jail.

Now 73, Spector is serving his sentence in a California prison while he and his third wife Rachelle Short (a former Playboy model 41 years Spector's junior who continues to live in the mansion where Clarkson was shot) continue to pursue appeals. In 2012, the Supreme Court chose not to review the conviction.

A New Life on Screen

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Spector’s wife Rachelle called Al Pacino’s portrayal of her husband in the new biopic “cheesy,” but hopes the movie will help sway public opinion about the murder conviction which she believes was more for political reasons than any solid evidence tying him to the crime.

"They didn't get O.J. Simpson, they didn't get Michael Jackson and they didn't get Robert Blake, so my husband is it," Rachelle Spector said to the magazine.

In 2011, "Phil Spector" director Mamet suggested to the Financial Times that Spector may in fact be innocent of the crime."Whether he did it or not, we’ll never know, but if he’d just been a regular citizen, they never would have indicted him," Mamet said in the interview.

"Phil Spector" airs on Sunday, March 31on HBO

 

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